Loyal readers of this blog will know that I spent the better part of five years living in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. Until six months ago, that is. In November, I picked up and moved across the country with my future husband JJ. He surprised me with a proposal in the last stop before our new city!
We now reside in the heart of the nation’s capitol. Washington, D.C. is beautiful, walkable and full of endless (and often free) things to do. Plus, there’s seasons here! But more on that later.
When we decided to move, we planned multiple variations on our route based on different possibilities for stopping points so we could see friends, family and a couple new cities along the way. With that in mind, we tried to keep most of the drives shorter to give us some time explore and catch up. In the end, we chose stops in Albuquerque, Dallas, Memphis, Louisville and Pittsburgh. With that settled, I began crowd-sourcing recommendations on where to eat.
I visited New Mexico with my family when I was younger, but I had little recollection of Albuquerque. When we drove into town, it reminded me a lot of Phoenix, just smaller. The same highway running through the center and surrounded by desert mountains.
Ahead of our first stop, I reached out to the girlfriend of my friend and fellow brunch enthusiast Greg. Luckily she was more than willing to help out a girl she’d never met with a couple recommendations. Sadie’s ended up being a great choice, because we wanted to try some traditional New Mexican food and the restaurant was packed midweek. I always take that as a good sign.
I opted for the beef brisket enchilada, which come smothered in sauce. Leading us to the age-old question, green or red? My answer, always green sauce. JJ opted for both. And while the generous portion left me far from hungry, I couldn’t turn down sopapillas. They’re so hard to find, even in the Southwest. If you’re unfamiliar, sopapillas are delicious, pillowy flat-breads that are best served piping hot and with a drizzle of honey.
We stopped in Dallas to spend time with JJ’s sister and her family. After a long day of driving and tornado warnings just outside of Dallas, home-cooked Filipino food was just what we needed.
But of course, I couldn’t drive through Texas without tasting some authentic made-in-Texas barbecue. So I spent the better part of our drive out of New Mexico researching barbecue joints so we could type a destination into our GPS. It paid off, when we got to Tyler’s Barbeque in Amarillo. Smoked brisket, beans, and peach cobbler — these are a few of my favorite things. And Tyler’s was definitely the spot the locals lunched at. A shining example of my favorite travel tip, follow the locals.
And what road trip is complete without snacks? We stopped for gas at The Pecan Shed in Henrietta, I picked up a snack-size bag of local pecans. At the end of Day 2 we were both exhausted and glad to be relaxing with family. Our longest day of driving was now behind us.
I grew up on the West Coast, but I have developed a special love of Southern cooking, in part because of a visit to Tennessee. My first major solo trip was to Nashville a few years back. It remains one of my favorite trips and I originally wanted to stop there instead of Memphis. It was CMA week when we would be driving through, and cue no hotel rooms and what would have surely been a chaotic couple days in Music City. However, I did yearn to see more of Tennessee so Memphis seemed like the obvious choice. Cue fried chicken, blues and jazz and one of my top five doughnut shops across the country*.
First stop in Memphis, a movie theater — I have never seen one of the contemporary James Bonds films more than a week or two after the release date. Luckily I have an equally movie-fanatic fiancé who has understood since very early on my fondness for 007 movies. So we ventured out to watch Spectre.
And that gave me time to get in touch with my friend Ellen, who had recently relocated to Memphis, about possibly meeting us for dinner. Thankfully I came out of the movie to a reply that of course she would love to catch up. And over fried chicken? Well she was glad I’d heard where to go, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. I don’t think I can say anything bad about this chicken. It was moist, crsipy and just spicy enough without killing your tastebuds. GQ even wrote a love letter to this place.
And last but not least, JJ’s friend had included Gibson’s on a list of must-eats and I was sold as soon I heard the word doughnut. So we made a stop on our way out of town. I got a just-right crispy on the outside and airy on the inside apple fritter and some potentially addicting lemon drops. The moist cake of these doughnut holes was studded with a distinct pure lemon flavor, I could eat this by the handful if I lived in Memphis. In hindsight, it’s lucky I only ordered two or three. That meant I had room for dinner when we got to our next stop.
*My top five doughnut shops around the country, listed alphabetically:
- Astro Doughnuts (Washington, DC)
- Doughnut Plant (New York, New York)
- Gibson’s Donuts (Memphis, Tennessee)
- Leonard’s Bakery (Honolulu, Hawaii)
- Stan’s (Westwood, California)
We chose Louisville mostly because we needed a route that would get us to Pittsburgh as our final stop before DC. I’d been to Louisville in the past for a conference and we’d been watching The Mind of a Chef, so I thought JJ would appreciate a stop into Edward Lee’s Milkwood. It was my one of my three favorite things about Louisville, besides bourbon (always neat) and Churchill Downs.
Milkwood is a mostly small-plates restaurant that melds southern and asian flavors. I’ve eaten here before and had one of the best chicken entrees, that wasn’t fried, in all of my years dining in restaurants. Milkwood is one of a handful of restaurants I’ve eaten in where the chef’s influences and unique perspective are so clear from the cocktails to the starters to the desserts.
The final stretch. We wanted to spend a couple days in Pittsburgh to meet up with one of JJ’s close friends, Tyler. On my end, our friend Alexa has a passion unlike most I’ve seen before when it comes to her hometown. That of course made me curious to see what all the hype was about in this city of bridges.
I think I was most disappointed to be visiting on a Monday, so the Andy Warhol Museum was closed. However, I quickly forgot when I got a surprise wedding proposal at the confluence of the three rivers. Now I have a deep connection to this city too so I’ll surely be back. Just next time on any other day besides Monday!
We ate a few meals, but the real standout and my best recommendation is the Pittsburgh tradition, Primanti Bros. These sandwiches are loaded high with cheese, slaw, tomato and your choice of meat on top a fresh italian roll. But the best part is the french fries in my opinion. I love potatoes, I would’ve ordered them anyways — in my opinion, it’s genius.
While visiting we also got a sneak peek inside PNC park (it’s not my beloved AT&T park in San Francisco, but it was a nice stadium), walked past Heinz Field and spent some time at the Heinz History Center. I actually learned some fascinating tidbits about Pennsylvania and there was a whole exhibit about H J Heinz Co. of course, which was of course of interest to this foodie.
We made our way into D.C. after a 7-day road trip. And now we’ve spent the last six months exploring our new home. Our first food stop was a favorite ramen spot, Daikaya. I love their light, fragrant Shio broth. And it’s the perfect cold-weather food. It’s always crowded but well worth the wait.
And JJ and I celebrated our engagement at the newly opened Momofuku CCDC. Having tried it for myself, I now understand the almost cult-like fascination with David Chang’s restaurants and their sister bakery, MilkBar. Every single one of those buns from the shitake to the pork are great. The beef noodle soup is probably my favorite entree. And dessert, well you really can’t go wrong with anything on Christina Tosi’s menu. But if I had to choose, I’d recommend the Corn cookie, Confetti cookie or the almost-legendary cereal milk soft-serve.